Aging Into Art


It’s likely you’ve never heard the name Katsushika Hokusai, but his work informs our thinking when it comes to what we perceive as Japanese art. For example, you’ve probably seen some form of his most famous painting (above), known simply as “The Great Wave,” which is part of a larger series called 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Hokusai lived from 1760-1849, and started training as an artist around the age of 12, but only produced his most important work, including “The Great Wave,” after 60.

I had a chance to view a special exhibition of his work this past week at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Amidst the many prints was a quote from the artist himself, which caught my attention:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about 50, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of 70, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At 73 years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.

Hokusai’s thoughts present a startling contrast to our culture obsessed with youth and quick success, and they hint at the long, disciplined process of mastery. What do you think of Hokusai’s words as they apply to the life of the artist, or to life in general?

Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.


  1. Pete Peterson


    This is great, Chris. I often find myself thinking about my own work (in writing, woodcraft, gardening, or anything else) and mourning the fact that in a few more decades, all I’ve learned will be lost, when what I really want is to keeping learning, improving, and growing in perpetuity. I’m thankful to live in the wake of a promise that I’ll be resurrected into a New Earth where I can continue growing further up and further in without having to worry about the time getting away from me.

  2. Laure Hittle

    i am constantly fighting the feeling of being behind. At 35 i am only starting to understand what i’m for. So i signed up for seminary—which i love; i am definitely made for this; studying Hebrew makes me come alive—and i have in my mind to do a literature degree after that. It’s tempting to feel impatient about the process. i want to WRITE. i don’t have any time for it. And for every Hokusai, there’s a Christopher Paolini telling me that my best years are behind me. i will never be able to do enough with the time i have left.

    When my pastor was in seminary, a professor told him, “Time spent sharpening the tool is not wasted.” i know that the decade or so i’m dedicating to spending in study will change me and deepen me, and will have an inestimable (and mostly intangible) effect on my writing. But i am impatient anyway. The idea of New Creation gives me hope that all the stories still stuck in my head at my moment of translation will not be lost.

    So i’m going to go write something, and then do my homework.

  3. JoeB

    Once, I heard a sermon by John Piper where he talked about death and the hints the Jesus gave about that transition being magically seamless (eg: “I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death.” John 8:51) and also invoked the verses stating how believers have (present tense, not future) eternal life.

    I don’t know if it was also in that sermon, or some other one blending into my memories, where it was pointed out that so many believers wait and pine for “one day” for that which comes next.

    If we really believe what Jesus promised, then age really is the grand illusion. I hope Katsushika Hokusai is still painting, and will get to see his craft develop for thousands of years.

    Can you imagine? If words assembled into a story, or notes and lyrics married to rend hearts or inspire joy born of skill honed in this painfully short span of life, what will we make from skills allowed to ferment for thousands, hundreds of thousands, of years?

    I have more skills I’m working on than a person should have the gall to attempt… I’m betting the Lord will not be displeased by a child squeezing every drop he can with this gift we know as life.

    I’ve always loved that painting. It’s scary. I love to surf and I’ve been stuck in that kind of surf before, with relentless nightmare marching waves. It invokes butterflies, thrill, fear and my heart rate will go up looking at it and thinking about it too long.

    Little sister you’re virtual toddler! The King of all creation has promised that we will live forever and he does not lie. Our best years haven’t even started yet. “I am free to run”

  4. Miss Linda

    When I first read his quote, I really wanted it to end with something like “And on my eleventy-first birthday, I will be ready to start work on my masterpiece.” But I can’t expect everyone to put in references to Hobbits, no matter how well it would have fit.

    More seriously, I find this idea quite valuable personally. This gives me hope.

    There are times when I love reading here, and times when I hate it. I think I’m drawn like a moth to a flame. I see something I want, something that fascinates me, but I can’t get close without getting burned. I’m not sure I’m even meant to. Is everyone meant to be a “sub-creator” really? Or are some people meant to fix leaks, keep track of schedules, and take out the trash? I want to be a person with some type of artistic talent and a calling to use it, but so far neither the talent or the calling is evident, at least to me. I can’t say whether my discontentment right now is evidence of a creative calling that is developing, or just a sinful envying of other peoples’ gifts. But I do hope that someday, whether in this lifetime or the next, I will become a person with something significant to say and a way to communicate it.

    Until then, I plan on enjoying the creativity and talents God has given the rest of you, while I do the work in front of me and wait for Him to make things more clear. Perhaps by the time I turn eleventy-one, I will be ready to start my masterpiece too.

  5. Abby Pickle

    This makes me think about how a piece of art is, in a sense never finished. One more detail can always be added, or another section refined one more time. God created man in his image. Can we say, “is creating man in his image?” I wonder if for eternity we will become more and more like God but never be finished growing.

    P. S. Did you know that when Hokusai was 70 he began working under the name Gakyō Rōjin Manji? The literal translation is “old man crazy about art.”

  6. JoeB

    @Miss Linda – Dinner can be a masterpiece. So can a clean kitchen, a well-run bookstore, a small restaurant, a car repair job done to perfection. In a story I am writing there is a middle eastern woman who is talented at administration. She displays the glory of God in planning events, meetings, trips, parties, and millions of things for the office she works in and the friends that she loves. She experiences great joy in expressing that love in service to others and those who are objects of that service feel loved in a way nobody else is in position to deliver.

    Just as God shows his glory in a mind-boggling diverse explosion of life on earth, He has also showered us with an array of talents and potential as numerous as stars. “Painting” is just one tiny star in a galaxy.

    Laure, you’re going to do such great things. I just know it 😀

  7. Miss Linda

    Thank you for the reminder JoeB.

    I think it comes back to trust. If I really believe that God made me, that He inhabits me, that He orders my steps and has prepared good works in advance for me (really, us- God and me together) to do, then even when I can’t see the value of the work He has put in front of me, I have to trust that He can and that He will make something worthwhile out of it. I find it easier to see the value in some things, like good books, songs, and to some degree visual arts, although words speak more strongly to me somehow. I guess it is natural that as a result I am drawn to those things. But ultimately it is only as I live as the person He intends me to be that anything I do will have value. I can’t be someone else, and even if I could, it wouldn’t be satisfying or meaningful. So for today, I will work through my “to do” list to the best of my ability, and trust that it matters.

    In saying this, I’m not saying that I won’t be trying to develop various talents. I want to learn and grow and become more than I am now. But I suspect that I need to come to this with the right attitude or all the learning in the world won’t really help. It would just be a “chasing after the wind.”

    The song repeating in my brain today is “Show Up” by Jill Phillips. It is helpful for days like this.

  8. David

    I like the form of Mr. Hokusai’s brief artistic autobiography — a venerable form that goes back at least to Confucius, probably further. And Confucius also took the long view — his recap went from fifteen (“I set my mind upon learning”) to seventy (“I follow the desires of my heart without breaking any rule”).

    Rush a miracle, you get a rotten miracle.

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